2018 Film Essays

More Than Just Design: ‘Incredibles 2’ and Yesterday’s Tomorrow

A lot has happened in the 14 years between the two Incredibles films, movie-wise that is. When The Incredibles first arrived in 2004, the modern-day superhero movie was still learning to crawl. Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2 were only four and one years old, respectively, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was still a year off, a Brandon Routh Superman would not return for another two years and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was but a glimmer in Kevin Feige’s eye.

There were others — Sam Rami’s wonderful Spider-Man (2002) helped elevate the form while Hulk and Daredevil (both 2003) almost sunk it — but the average moviegoer’s conception of a superhero movie in 2004 was most likely Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) — both wonderful and cheesy in their own way — or an animated take on a DC character from Warner Brothers.

The Incredibles was different. The action was exciting, the characters were defined; the villain’s plight and plot made sense, and the situations Bob (Mr. Incredible) and Helen Parr (Elastigirl) faced were not only plausible, they were understandable. All the pieces clicked together nicely, humming along like a well-tuned 1961 Chevy Impala 409 for nearly two hours without a prolonged backstory or over-bloated action.

That was then, and this is now, and Incredibles 2 still feels different than most superhero movies. The story primarily revolves around the role-reversal of putting Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) on the superhero frontlines while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) learns what it takes to be a stay-at-home parent to a teenager, Violet (Sarah Vowell), a rambunctious kid, Dash (Huck Milner), and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), whose burgeoning superpowers make Bob’s responsibilities all the more exhausting.

As defined and memorable as the Parrs are, so are Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark and the myriad of protagonists populating superhero franchises. But, as any Batman fan will tell you, it’s not the hero that makes the story, it’s the villain. For The Incredibles, that role belonged to Syndrome (voiced brilliantly by Jason Lee): a hurt Mr. Incredible fanboy rejected by his hero. Galvanized by his loss, Syndrome spins his pain and self-pity into an obsession, eventually surpassing Mr. Incredible’s powers with technology — exacting his revenge while elevating himself by dragging down those above him. “When everyone is super,” he says with the requisite villainous cackle, “no one will be.”

Incredibles 2 picks up where The Incredibles left off, both narratively and thematically. This time, the villain is Screenslaver, a dark and lanky figure that can control viewers through a hypnotic pattern broadcast from any TV screen or visual display. And what does Screenslaver want, beyond a need to settle a long-held grudge? To free the masses from subservient, miserable lives of passivity.

“You don’t talk, you watch talk shows,” Screenslaver tells the captive audience. “You don’t play games; you watch game shows.”

“Travel, relationships, risk, every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you,” the digitally altered voice continues. “So that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t bring themselves to rise from their couches, break a sweat and participate in life.”

It’s not exactly the message you might expect to hear while partaking in the latest summer blockbuster. And yet, it’s hard to dismiss even though the speech doesn’t really fit inside the narrative of Incredibles; less so when the true identity of the Screenslaver is revealed, and even less so when one considers that the speech is not addressing the audience inside the movie but the audience watching in 2018.

Whereas most audiences view Hollywood genres as discrete worlds that do not intersect with the everyday in which they are viewed, (e.g., the Western remains firmly in the post-Civil War era while the Noir Cycle inhabits the decade following World War II), critic Robin Wood argued that Hollywood uses genre to understand the ideological contradictions affecting American society. In Incredibles 2, writer-director Brad Bird and his team of technicians present Screenslaver’s monologue as diegetic voiceover while Elastigirl moves cat-like through high-rises and walkups, moves up spires and over rooftops, in search of Screenslaver’s lair. And — to borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard — because viewers may be too busy looking at sounds rather than listening to images, one can easily miss the subtext behind Screenslaver’s harangue.

Let’s back up a little bit. Though The Incredibles is a period piece, roughly set in the early 60s, the movie has no interest in exploring the past. Instead, this is the present à la an alternate timeline, one with Silver Age superheroes and Jet Age Futurism. Granted, the world building around the Parrs is somewhat sparse compared to the one seen in Incredibles 2; The Incredibles quickly situates the viewer in the mindset of mid-century modernism by using familiar post and beam structures, sharp angles and limited decoration.

That world is more prevalent in Incredibles 2. Gleaming skyscrapers of exposed concrete and shimmering glass jut skyward, while densely populated cities move people from place to place on hover trains, monorails, hydrofoils, electric motorcycles and tricked-out automobiles. In one scene, Elastigirl chases a runaway hover train down by maneuvering her electric motorcycle down streets crowded by automobiles and sidewalks teeming with pedestrians. It’s a quick shot, but it shows a thriving city life, one that would have made Jane Jacobs positively giddy.

Out in the suburbs, a modernist mansion fit for Julius Shulman’s portfolio both cuts into the natural surrounding while engaging with it. Most mid-century modernist homes in Southern California were designed to be indoor/outdoor spaces — the Eames house had a tree growing through the living room — but the Parr’s new digs, provided by billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), brings the outdoors inside with waterfalls and a moat. Almost predictably, that moat becomes a gag of technology gone awry, not unlike the homes featured in Disney’s Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World.

Clean and sleek Jet Age Futurism bleeds into every nook and cranny of Incredibles 2so much so that Bird seems to be saying “this is what we should have been doing all along.” Screenslaver’s dictum might be less an old man screaming at those kids to get off his lawn and more like someone pining for an Eden lost. Or an Eden that never was. Yesterday’s tomorrow never felt so far away.

Michael J. Casey (@michaeljcinema) covers cinema and beer for Boulder Weekly with bylines at HopCulture.com, 5280.com and TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog. He lives in Colorado with his wife and cat.